Mayflower docks at Plymouth Harbor

We are a nation of firsts – and sometimes if we can’t get an absolute first, a relative first will do. In beauty contests, for example, we are now getting rid of “second” in favor of “first runner-up.” Maybe it is just ingrained in our nature to want to excel.

We are coming up this month on a historic anniversary that sort of illustrates our dedication to “first principles;” the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims and the Puritans (yup, two different groups, one boat) landed at (or maybe just near) Plymouth Rock 387 years ago on December 18, 1620. They were not the first Europeans to arrive and settle in the new world – that honor goes to Columbus over a century earlier in the Caribbean. They were not even the first English settlers – the Jamestown Colony wins that race by 13 years, landing as the “first English settlement” in 1607. The Mayflower colony did come in first in one major category – they were the first English settlement of families. While there were some adventurers aboard, many of the company were families seeking a new life and settling in a new land. They were incredibly purposeful in their intent to found a new order, if not a new country.

The “Pilgrims,” a name applied later, were a particular branch of Puritans within the Anglican Church who had decided the church could never be purged of catholic influences and so separated themselves from it. This group was known as Separatists in contrast to the majority of Puritans, who remained within the Anglican Church and were known as nonseparating Puritans. The two branches of Puritanism were quite hostile to each other and a number of Separating Puritans had moved to the Netherlands seeking religious freedom.

When the Mayflower embarked on September 6, 1620 from somewhere around Plymouth, the Separating Puritans had arranged for the voyage, but the company included both Puritans and Pilgrims or separatist Puritans. By accounts, it was not a pleasant voyage. The Mayflower left England on a two-month voyage bound for Virginia in the Americas. Navigation at that time being a bit less accurate than today’s GPS, they landed in way northern Virginia – what we now know as Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There were 102 passengers – about one-third of which were separatist Puritans or Pilgrims and there were 41 men among them, including heads of families, single men and servants.

The Mayflower arrived on November 11, 1620 at what is now Provincetown Harbor and before going ashore, the Company of men articulated and signed the Mayflower Compact – a document which committed the signers to submit to a government chosen by common consent and to obey any laws made for the good of the colony.  In effect, the Mayflower Compact planted the bare root of democracy in America. The Compact read:

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c. Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience. IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth,Anno Domini; 1620.

Cape Cod is a nice place in the summer, but not so much in November and the company sent scouting groups to find a place to build a settlement. One of these groups found a good harbor on the western side of Cape Cod Bay. With all deliberate speed, the Mayflower Company set sail and made for what we now know as Plymouth, Massachusetts landing, according to legend, at Plymouth Rock and settling into a cleared area that had been abandoned by the Wampanoag Indians.

On December 18, we can reflect that our nation was founded by a group of independent families dedicated to principles of law and social order. Their spirit still informs us all.

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